Monday, 26 September 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #3 – Timewyrm: Apocalypse by Nigel Robinson

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Timewyrm: Apocalypse
By Nigel Robinson

Whoosh – another one done in a day.  But Apocalypse isn't something I read in a starburst of excitement, like Exodus.  The quick turnaround is mainly due to it being a really short book.

Written by Nigel Robinson, previously the editor of the Target range and so another writer well used to all this, Apocalypse tends not to show up in a lot of Favourite New Adventures lists.  Certainly it feels like a comedown after Terrance Dicks' page-turning, time-travelling thriller, and I'm not in a major hurry to read it again.  Assuming it's not on those lists because it's awful would be erroneous, however.  It's quite good in parts.  I suspect it's just a little too close to "normal" Doctor Who to set anybody's world on fire.

Tracking the Timewyrm to a planet at the end of time (more or less), the Doctor and Ace discover the Kirithons – a perfect race living in paradise.  But paradise has its sinister side.  The people are fed and protected by the elusive Panjistri, who sometimes take exceptional Kirithons into their ranks, never to be seen again and quickly forgotten by their loved ones.  A Kirithon called Raphael is starting to remember; with the Doctor and Ace's encouragement, a full-blown rebellion is inevitable.

Sound familiar?  Paradise having a seedy underbelly is the punchline to every utopia story ever written.  The old "once you ascend, you never come back" routine is Russell T Davies's bread and butter.  (His Who writing came later, but then he actually submitted The Long Game back in the '80s.)  As for the docile society that doesn't ask enough questions of its benevolent rulers, and the Doctor et al being the ones to change that, I don't even know where to begin listing the references.  (When a race of misunderstood mutants turn up on the outskirts of town, however, I muttered aloud: "Terry Nation".)  For good measure, there are a few knowing references to cliché as well: "If we're going to get locked up in the castle dungeon it might as well be now."

The story isn't bad – all things considered, it does a good job inside a very familiar framework.  Like Terrance Dicks said about clichés being things that work, this whole arena does feel convincingly like Doctor Who.  Turning pretty-but-secretly-corrupt societies on their heads is very much the Doctor, as well as very much the Seventh Doctor in particular.  I think this bit of dialogue, essentially the anti-Binro-the-Heretic-scene, sums up a Doctor Who-ey ethos rather well:

'I can tell you many things, Miríl,' he said. 'I can tell you of worlds beyond wonder and a secret older than time. I can tell you of the nature of good and evil, the power of the human heart, and the best recipe for bread and butter pudding ... but I'll tell you only two things. Those records you've shown me are a sham: there's not a word of truth in any of them. And you, the Panjistri and everyone else for that matter, could leave the planet whenever you want.
'You've been tricked, Miríl. All your people have. The Panjistri need you much more than you need them. And I intend to find out why.'

So it's good Doctor Who, but you've heard it before, and probably done with more flair.  And I mean recently: Ace finds herself the subject of a sacrifice two books running, just as the Timewyrm once again latches itself on to a human host.  That concept seemed far more integral, not to mention interestingly unstable, in Exodus; conversely you wait through all of Apocalypse just to find out the same thing is going on.  Guys, it's a Timewyrm book: it’s a fair bet she's pulling a similar trick.  I commenced a very slight eye-roll when (spoiler! Ah, who am I kidding, it's Book Three of Four) she slipped away at the end.  The poor old Doctor is beginning to sound like Dr Claw.  Next time, Timewyrm!

Okay, enough about the plot.  Are the characters well-written?  I'd say yes.  Ace gets more to do, bonding with Raphael a fair bit; there sadly isn't time to make much of this, nor of the emotionally-charged ending that inadvertently prefigures what happens to her in Love And War (coming soon), but you can feel more work being done with her character than we've had recently.  Little of it is new ground – old issues come back, including (yet again) televised plot-events – but at least it's focusing on who she is, rather than her tendency to blow stuff up.  (There is, sadly, plenty of that.)  Her dialogue still includes some of that lamentable '80s brat-speak ("Back off, bilge-breath!" said no teenager ever), but there are also some amusing and colourful insights. ("He's making fun of me, was her first thought. Compared to the rest of the women in this town I might as well look like the back of a bus.")  She's beginning to shape up.

The Doctor isn't quite as barnstorming as he was in Exodus, and he's having a slight identity crisis into the bargain.  Not for the first time, a New Adventure sneaks in a cameo from a past Doctor, a practice which is starting to stick out a bit.  Knowing they would eventually end up publishing past Doctor books sort of explains the frustration of not playing with everything in the toy-box just yet.  And at least it's not as out-of-left-field as the one in Genesys.  (Strange that the Doctor's previous-self-contact hasn't come back, as it would be really useful here.  Ditto the incredibly nifty TARDIS remote control, seen in Exodus, and I'll wager never seen again!  It would easily have saved his bacon in a climactic scene here.)  Ultimately Robinson writes an authentic Seventh Doctor, especially when he's tearing down other people's paradise, or reflecting on the timely mortality of the universe.  Shades of the Doctor: the great manipulator do appear, but we sort of rush through them.  At 201 pages, we rush through most of it.

Not for the first time (which could be my review in a nutshell), the Timewyrm feels like a minor subplot.  Which is fine, but unfortunately the plot it's tethered to is nothing spectacular, even though it concerns the end of the universe.  (Don't get too hot and bothered, the universe takes a lot longer to die than you'd think.)  Robinson is an accomplished and colourful enough writer to make the journey and its characters worth exploring, but I can already feel it falling away from my thoughts.  It's okay.  But it's time for something new.


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